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Teachers call for clear guidance on how to support trans pupils in England

<span>Photograph: Peter Lopeman/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Peter Lopeman/Alamy

Teaching leaders have called on ministers to provide guidance on how to support students who identify as transgender, saying they are “caught in the crossfire” between strongly held views.

A thinktank said safeguarding principles were being “routinely disregarded in many secondary schools” when it came to gender identity, with some parents not told when their child first questioned their identity.

A paper from the rightwing Policy Exchange thinktank said a number of secondary schools were not informing parents as soon as a child questioned their gender identity. The research was based on responses to freedom of information (FoI) requests from 154 out of England’s 24,000 schools.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said schools were making significant efforts to provide support and care to pupils, but that the report was contributing to creating a difficult environment dominated by strongly held opposing views.

“Schools work very hard to be sensitive to the needs of pupils questioning their gender identity, and all their pupils, by providing a supportive and caring environment, and teaching children sensitively about respectful relationships in a diverse society through RSE [relationships and sex education] lessons,” he said.

“Unfortunately, they are endeavouring to do this in the context of a public minefield of strongly held and opposing views, of which this report from a thinktank is yet another example.”

Steve Chalke, the head of the Christian charity and academy sponsor Oasis Trust, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, said schools were dealing with children with mental health problems, adding that 64% of young people considering gender transition were bullied in Britain’s schools, while 80% had self-harmed and 40% had attempted to take their own life.

On Thursday Rishi Sunak promised to provide guidance for schools by the summer term. Asked about the report during a visit to the UK Atomic Energy Authority in Oxfordshire, he said he was “concerned” but it was an area that had to be treated “sensitively”.

He said the government was already reviewing relationships and sex education guidance to make sure that it is age appropriate for children, adding: “But also what I’m also going to say today is that for the summer term we will make sure that we publish guidance for schools so that they know how to respond when children are asking about their gender.

“These are really sensitive areas, it’s important that we treat them sensitively, and that parents know what’s going on, and we’ll make sure that that happens.”

Dozens of organisations wrote to the education secretary last week to urge her not let culture wars weaken sex education following Sunak’s announcement of the review, saying that England’s schools have vital role in tackling misogyny and abuse.

Last year teachers said advice from Suella Braverman, then the attorney general, that schools should “take a much firmer line” with pupils who identified as transgender, was “unhelpful” and potentially damaging to children’s mental health. Braverman said schools did not have to accommodate pupils who wanted to change gender, and were under no legal obligation to address them by a new pronoun or let them wear a different uniform.

But some headteachers, who are increasingly having to navigate their way through these issues, fear not respecting students’ wishes would have a negative impact on their mental health and education.

Barton said: “The government has still not produced guidance for schools on supporting pupils who identify as trans or who are questioning their gender identity, despite this having been under discussion for several years.

“This is clearly needed so that schools are able to draw on an established set of guidelines rather than constantly being caught in the crossfire between opposing views and beliefs.”

FoI requests were submitted to 304 secondary schools in England in December last year, and 154 schools responded, either fully or in part, to questions asked by the thinktank about gender policies.

Policy Exchange said only 28% of the secondary schools that responded to the request were reliably informing parents as soon as a child questioned their gender. According to the report, about 28% of secondary schools were not maintaining single-sex toilets and 19% were not maintaining single-sex changing rooms.

The thinktank asked schools for their policies on toilets, changing rooms and sports relating to single-sex provision. It stated: “Overall, schools were more likely to retain single-sex provision in all three elements. However, schools were significantly more likely to allow a socially transitioned child to partake in opposite-sex sports, than allow them to use opposite-sex toilets or changing rooms.”

It added that a “number” of schools responded that while they would not allow a child to use “the facilities of the opposite sex, alternative facilities would be provided if the child felt uncomfortable using the facilities of their biological sex”. A small number of secondary schools stated that all toilets were unisex and there were no same-sex facilities, according to the report, which it said was “a potential breach of the law”.

The report concludes: “Our research reveals there to be a safeguarding blind spot when it comes to the issue of sex and gender.

“Safeguarding principles are being routinely disregarded in many secondary schools, which are neglecting their safeguarding responsibilities and principles in favour of a set of contested beliefs, in ways that risk jeopardising child wellbeing and safety.

“In doing so, schools are compromising both the law and statutory safeguarding guidance.”

A spokesperson for LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall said that the government’s statutory guidance on Keeping Children Safe in Education stated that LGBTQ+ children were at risk of being targeted at school, and having a trusted adult at school played an important part in reducing that risk of harm.

“If LGBTQ+ children are to have the same opportunity to thrive as any other child, it is essential that they have the space to speak out and share their concerns, and that school staff have the tools they need to support them with confidence,” they said.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Our priority will always be the safety and wellbeing of children and young people. The education secretary is working closely with the minister for women and equalities to produce guidance for schools, which we will be consulting on shortly. In the meantime, we are clear that schools should make sure they work with parents, pupils and public services to decide what is best for individual children.”